Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A process for teaching a peer taught, online course - contd

Once all the grading and other process details are explained to the students, the faculty starts by explaining the first topic in a kickstart fashion and giving a set of resources to the students for further understanding. So, for example, if the topic is “Input/Output in Java”, the faculty will explain the basic architecture of the IO library, they will demonstrate a simple program that reads input from a console and writes to the console. The lecture ends with an introduction of the full capabilities of the library and a list of resources which the students must study to further their understanding. If possible a topic may also be linked to a project milestone. The students will then proceed with their learning by reading the link or maybe viewing screencasts, or listening to podcasts. They should write their learning and perspectives on their blog, and ask doubts on he newsgroup. The mentors will follow the students blogs and help them with their understanding by commenting on the blogs and will help the students further, by answering their questions on the newsgroup. Helping by answering and commenting need not be restricted to mentors. Other students in the class are also encouraged to comment on their classmates blogs and answer their questions. The students also start work on the project from the first week, reporting the progress on their blogs. One member of the group will act as a project leader for each milestone, such that there is a new leader for each milestone. The leader must report progress made on that milestone, problems faced, and how the members are trying to overcome the problems. The mentor may also schedule a classroom or an on line session to have discussions with students and to solve their doubts.

Each group will be given a CVS account for the project. All project work should be committed to CVS regularly. Mentors will also have access to these projects and can check out the code that students are working on.

The above process goes on week after week, with the mentor introducing new topics each week, and the students proceeding with studying, working on projects, and participating.

We should also try and involve industry mentors who will help the students by giving them direction on their projects and also help them with concepts. They can provide their mentoring entirely on the net. These industry mentors should ideally spend an hour, for two days in a week to read the project progress blog of the team they are helping and give them direction. At most they will have to dedicate two hours per week for their mentoring tasks.

In the duration of the course, the students will learn from lectures, they will also learn by studying from resources given to them by the mentors, by reflecting on what they have studied and blogging about it, and by participating in (online as well as offline) discussions with their friends and mentors. Most importantly they will learn by doing, by working on the projects as software developers.

Some precautions:

However, since this methodology is new, it is important that we take continuous feedback from students as well as mentors in the initial stages, so we can fine tune the process wherever needed.

It is also very important that students abandon the desire to be spoon fed. It is imperative that they take the initiative to learn and participate.

It may happen that the mentors who had initially volunteered to help students may not be able to dedicate time, due to work pressure or other reasons. From our end, we must make it as easy as possible for the mentors. By allowing them to participate online, we have already eliminated the overhead of traveling. It might also help if each panel has an internal faculty or a regular visiting faculty who can coordinate with the mentors if such issues arise.


The above methodology and process will enable a much better learning experience for the students. Since much of the interaction is online, we will also be able to attract skilled mentors from the industry, especially senior developers who may not have the time to come to campus to take a class.

The students will learn real world practices that are adopted by the industry, and they will also be able to use their blog as an extension of their resume.

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